Ever Wondered What You Look Like to a Dolphin?

December 8, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

Echolocation image of a diver, as seen by a dolphin.
Photo credit: Cymascope Laboratories (

Take a look. Scientists have finally developed a method of visualizing what a dolphin "sees" with its echolocation.

Dolphins are one of the smartest animals on the planet — they have fantastic problem-solving skills, as well as advanced communication skills.  A component of their communication includes echolocation (or biosonar) — a process of calling out to the environment and listening to the echoes of those calls that return from various objects.

Scientists have been studying echolocation for years, but for the first time ever, researchers from the US and the UK have captured an image that shows how a dolphin perceives a human using echolocation.

The image was created using a fairly complicated process that replicates reflected pulses of sound.  Jack Kassewitz, the founder of Speak Dolphin explained in a press release, “When a dolphin scans an object with its high-frequency sound beam, each short click captures a still image, similar to a camera taking photographs.”

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“We’ve been working on dolphin communication for more than a decade,” said Kassewitz in the release. “When we discovered that dolphins not exposed to the echolocation experiment could identify objects from recorded dolphin sounds with 92% accuracy, we began to look for a way for to see what was in those sounds.”

A research team, led by Kassewitz, used an imaging system, called Cymascope — invented by John Stuart Reid, that recorded and isolated dolphin echolocation sounds directed onto specific objects.  Cymascope created a 2D image from those sounds and a computer then converted those images into 3D using photo analysis.  It was a very tricky process since echolocation sounds do not form just a flat picture — sound returns also have depth information.

For the experiment, a female dolphin named Amaya directed her sonar at a submerged diver, while a hydrophone captured the echos.  To avoid “noise”, Jim McDonough (the diver), swam without a breathing apparatus to avoid creating bubbles that would negatively affect the results.  As Amaya scanned McDonough, Cymascope imprinted sonic vibrations on the surface of pure water.  The researchers also had Amaya direct her sonar beams at a flowerpot, a cube, and a plastic “+” symbol.

“We were thrilled by the first successful print of a cube by the brilliant team at 3D Systems,” said Kassewitz.  “But seeing the 3D print of a human being left us all speechless.  For the first time ever, we may be holding in our hands a glimpse into what cetaceans see with sound.”

The researchers believe that these sound-based images may be understood by other dolphins, implying dolphins also use a “sono-pictorial language.”  This is an area of research currently underway.

A television documentary is currently being developed about the team’s development of 3D images using dolphin echolocation.

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